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Local author speaks about life, career of 19th-century deaf baseball player

Author Jim Johnson gives a presentation about baseball in the early 1900s and about his book "Dummy Hanson: A Deaf Baseball Pitcher's Life in the Hearing World" June 17 at the Kandiyohi County Historical Society museum in Willmar. (Tribune photo by Ron Adams)

He never heard the crack of the bat or the cheers from the crowd, but that didn't stop him from earning a reputation as a strikeout pitcher.

Esten "Dummy" Hanson, a deaf baseball player from western Minnesota in the early 1900s, was the focus of a presentation last week by author Jim Johnson at the Kandiyohi County Historical Society.

Johnson, whose 2008 book '"Dummy' Hanson: A Deaf Baseball Pitcher's Life in the Hearing World" details the career of the amateur player, spoke about the research he did for the book and his experiences interacting with the deaf community.

"Writing this book, I learned that the deaf and hard of hearing are the most invisible disability in our society," Johnson said during the presentation. "I learned more about this segment of our society than I ever knew in my life."

Hanson was born to Norwegian immigrants in 1877 in Swift County. After attending the Minnesota State Academy for the Deaf (MSAD), he achieved regional fame as a pitcher, playing for teams in Eden Valley, Kerkhoven and Battle Lake. He earned his nickname, "Dummy," from local newspapers and baseball fans.

Johnson, originally from New London, said Hanson would have had to overcome numerous obstacles in order to be taken seriously as a baseball player. Even the deaf school he attended was known at the time as the Minnesota Institute for Defectives.

"People ask me, 'Why did I (write this book)?'" Johnson said. "I guess the project found me. I did not want this man who had the guts to say 'I'm good' to be forgotten."

In the preface to his book, Johnson recalls how his grandfather, who played on the Kerkhoven team with Hanson, instilled in him a desire to learn more about the pitcher. In 2001, he began writing several columns for the Kerkhoven Banner newspaper about Hanson and his career in baseball. The book that eventually followed, Johnson writes, "is the result of my research into this unique man's life."

Johnson said he spent seven years researching Hanson's career, meeting and interviewing people who were related to him or knew about him through someone else.

"My research connected a lot of dots for me about society," Johnson said. "It's amazing the talent he had to have had. Esten Hanson was born to play baseball."

Hanson's niece, Vivian Hanson Nelson of Willmar, was in the audience to hear Johnson speak about her uncle's life.

"It was very interesting because I didn't know very much about my uncle," Nelson said. "My folks didn't talk about him much. I've learned more tonight than I even did reading the book."

Jill Wohnoutka, director of the Kandiyohi County Historical Society, said events like these that focus on area history are "invaluable."

"We learn from history," she said. "History brought us to where we are today, and it can help fill in the blanks for us."

Wohnoutka said the decision to have Johnson speak came from learning that both he and Hanson had lived in Kerkhoven. She also said that because this is the first year Willmar has hosted its own amateur baseball team, the Stingers, she saw baseball as a common theme that would be interesting to local residents.

Johnson is an avid baseball fan himself, and the sport has been in his family for a long time, he said in an interview after the presentation.

"I just love the game of baseball," he said. "And it was a lot of fun to read about simpler times when the only performance enhancers were chewing tobacco and stomach bitters."

Johnson graduated from Concordia College in 1954 and the William Mitchell College of Law in 1961. He is currently retired and living in Minneapolis, though he still contributes regular columns to the Kerkhoven Banner. He is also an active member of the Minnesota Historical Society and the Halsey Hall Chapter of the Society for American Baseball Research.

Ashley White

Ashley White is the community content coordinator for the West Central Tribune. Follow her on Twitter @Ashley_WCT.

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